York Museums Trust

< Back to Blog

Conservation of Two Victorian Tile Panels on the Front Façade of York Art Gallery – Laura Turner

The cleaning of the front façade of the gallery has recently been completed and thanks to a generous grant from The Pilgrim Trust, we have also been able to conserve and protect the two historic tile panels on the front façade (see below).


Edward Taylor, the architect who designed the York Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition building (which late became York Art Gallery) originally planned a highly decorative scheme for the front façade. As this lithograph shows, it included various statuary and relief panels but sadly due to a lack of funds and political will, the scheme was never realised. However, in 1887 eight years after the building opened, Alderman Rooke of York presented two tile panels depicting Leonardo Da Vinci expiring in the arms of Francis I and Michelangelo showing his Moses, made by the firm of W B Simpson and Sons of London, which neatly fitted into existing recesses on the left and right side of the building.

WB Simpson and Sons Ltd who originally provided the tiles are still in existence but unfortunately all of their archives were destroyed and we are unable to determine whether the tile panels at York Art Gallery were bespoke or chosen from a catalogue of designs. The company continue to design and install tile designs for public buildings (most recently The new library in Birmingham) and are particularly renown for providing tiles for London Underground Stations.

Over 120 years since they were first installed, the tile panels were in desperate need of conservation since they had lost significant colour, detailing and lettering which meant they were almost impossible to read from ground level. Years of general dirt and bird guano ( that’s bird poo to you and I!) from our resident gallery pigeons had also taken its toll.

We worked with Crick Smith from the University of Lincoln to undertake the treatment, and Claire Nice and Sarah Cheung completed the conservation over a period of a week with fantastic results. Here are their observations of the treatment:

The main problem with the panels was the loss of the detail to the pictures, particularly the panel on the left, which had no colour along the right side and the inscription on the bottom had disappeared.  Both were covered in bleached out ‘splashes’.

The tiles had suffered from dirt and pollutant deposits on the surface and were covered in a small amount of bird guano. We intended to clean the panels, first with gentle brushing and then a wet cleaning method, however we discovered on testing our wet cleaning that the colours were not bound to the surface and therefore we had to proceed with much caution!

Once the panels were cleaned to an acceptable level we began filling in the missing detail so that in future the panels can be read more easily. This involved applying a conservation standard acrylic paint, which allowed it to dry very quickly and not fade over time. To reinstate the inscription, we used stencils to copy existing lettering and then lightly pencilled this in place. Colour was applied to match the original and in other areas of loss.

Finally a protective coating of microcrystalline wax was applied to protect the surface of the tiles from the elements. It was a hugely satisfying job and we were very pleased with the outcome.

We’re looking forward to unveiling the newly conserved tile panels and the installation of new bird deterrents and the protective coating on the tiles should preserve and protect them for many more years.